Yesterday, one of my Ethiopian pupils, to celebrate failing his driving test, took me to an authentic Ethiopian restaurant. The Melkem Megeb Restaurant stands on a corner of Roundhay Road and Gathorne Street in the Harehills area of Leeds. It is obviously a popular venue for the community.
We sat a table by the window and I looked around the simple interior, taking in the other, predominantly, African diners, admired the ethnic artwork on the walls, wondered at the wash hand basin, predominant in the corner and noted the absence of cutlery.
The tall proprietor approached and welcomed us and handed us the menus, while a boy, obviously his son, set the table. To my dismay, all the dishes on the menu contained lamb. Why was I dismayed about lamb? Well, much to the annoyance of my wife Val, who rather likes lamb, I have a psychological problem with lamb; I can’t rid myself of the idea that lambs are baby sheep, kittens of the farming world. I see the word LAMB on a menu and a voice in my head says, shouts: NO, NO, NO! I see them, in my head, gambolling, playing in lush green fields under blue Spring skies. I have a similar difficulty with duck, and of course with Val, who likes duck. Most people see meat, I see Donald.
However, my good manners trumped my abhorrence of eating the children of sheep. I ate what Yosef had ordered, ate what was put in front of me. I was determined to enjoy this unique experience in a far flung outpost of one of the cradles of human civilisation.
We shared two meat dishes which were served, not in dishes, but on top of a flexible, rubbery pancake called an Injera. This is folded up on a platter and looks as though, if it was unfolded, would cover the entire table. It has a sort of sour taste, which, if I was a food critic, I would say contrasts beautifully with the fiery sauces of the meat course. But, as my family and friends would testify, gourmet, I am not! The way the meal is eaten is that a piece of the injera is torn off using the right hand and is used to pick or scoop up the meat and the sauces. This explained the necessity of the wash hand basin in the corner of the restaurant and the absence of cutlery.
I may not have fully appreciated the meal, but, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the conversation and the exposure to another culture. I learned that there are 75 languages in Ethiopia, that it is the most populated landlocked country on Earth with a population of over 90 million. Yosef tried to explain the Ethiopian calendar, a solar calendar, that the current year is 2007 and started on September 11th 2014 AD. He told me that Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been colonised, although Mussolini did have a go. I was informed that it is one of the oldest centres of Christian and Muslim faith and, according, to Yosef they all live in peace. But the politics are far from peaceful.
Eritrea, which was a part of Ethiopia, the coastal part, had a referendum in 1993 and became an independent country with a population of just over 6 million. Both countries fell out, went to war, over where the border should be drawn. “At least your country will not have such problems, they have a wall do they not?” Said Yosef, who has the opinion that the Scots are stupid to, but will, leave the UK. “Your country, Scotland, it should think very carefully,” counselled Yosef. “Ethiopia has never been wealthy, it is African, but now Eritrea, it is the fifth poorest country in the World. It has a very small population, you understand.” And, it is true that Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, whereas Eritrea, a single party presidential state, is in the economic doldrums. I thought, as I listened, that life and politics are complicated. I thought of the tragedy of the wars, the poverty, driving these people to risk everything to seek a better life.
Yosef has dual nationality. His mother is Eritrean and his father Ethiopian. After the referendum and when the war kicked off his family lived in Ethiopia. Yosef and his mother were told they could remain in Ethiopia only if they signed a document promising they would not cause any trouble.
Yosef laughed when he told me this. “You will have to sign such a document, to remain in England when the time comes, after the next referendum!”
Coffee was served. Ethiopian coffee is pretty strong stuff and is served in small cups on saucers with the only piece of cutlery in the place: a tea spoon.